Saturday, August 21, 2010

Roadtrip Updates from Nashville, TN

Hello all,

The road trip has almost come to an end. By Sunday, I'll be back in Philadelphia. My awesome brother, Erik, met me in New Orleans on Thursday night and we're driving the last leg together, which is fantastic! We had a great time checking out Bourbon Street on Thursday night and then drove a long long day to Nashville on Friday. We barely made it to Nashville in time to check out a little music cafe that had been highly recommended to me by a couple of folks from Tennessee that I met while viewing prairie dogs in the Badlands of South Dakota. And of course, I took their advice. We were not led astray!! I will need to write out the entire story soon, but let's just say, we heard performances from some of the singer-songwriters that are behind the lyrics of the country songs Erik and I grew up with. AMAZING!

Yesterday morning in Mandeville, LA we saw the largest live oak in the United States...39 feet in!! Then we saw a few awesome trees by twilight in Alabama last night and today we'll be checking out the national champion Atlantic White Cedar in Ohio!! Trees all over the US are feeling loved...lots of hugs have been given.

Toast to the morning with coffee that Erik and I made up:

To the parties in New Orleans
To the Nashville music scene
May we smile some more today
Cuz here we come PA

As I mentioned before, coordinating tree visits, driving long distances, seeing amazing parts of the United States and camping without internet connections make keeping up with the blog very very challenging and I have obviously not been doing well with that. But I figure, I'd rather give you the whole story of the trip in quality rather than quantity, so I will be catching up on the blog steadily once my feet are off the floorboards of trusty ol' Florida (Rudy and I named the Toyota Corolla).

Much Love,

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Lessons from a Bike Ride through the Florida Keys

The bike ride through the Florida keys is complete and it was so much more than I ever expected. Here are a couple of suggestions to remember if you want to do something similar and for me to remind myself when I do this again in the future (because I certainly want to!):
  1. there is a public bus system available from Florida City to Marathon Key (Miami Dade Transit/Monroe Express) and there is another shuttle available from Marathon Key to Key West (Lower Keys Shuttle). So if you need a bus ride for a portion or to retrieve a car on the return, this option is great. It would certainly have been cheaper than renting a car as we did.
  2. Marathon Key and Islamorada have a lot to offer as towns. In between roughing it at the state parks, sweating it out on the bike, and swatting mosquitoes, take some time to enjoy the tiki bars, local artisans, and museums along the route as well. It's a real taste of the Keys. Plus, after all that riding and sweating, you deserve a frosty beer...and it tastes so much sweeter!
Here's a map of the things I saw along the way...amazing! Great stops!

View Florida Keys Bike in a larger map

And here are a few things I learned along the way:
  1. If you look like a hobo, no one will bother you.
  2. Places that look really interesting from a car at 55mph may or may not look as good at 10mph
  3. When the condition of the bike lane begins to rattle the bolts off your bike, give up and ride on the road.
  4. Release your inner child. The excitement, the curiosity, the wonder.
  5. Bandannas double as towels in a pinch (again, hobos really know what they're doing)
  6. I could be like MacGyver given unlimited time. Necessity really does breed creativity.
  7. Chain your bike up everywhere! The 10 pound Mr. T chain scares most people away and it adds to the hobo look.
  8. Marathon Key marks the beginning of the international island time zone. Time to start hitting the tiki bars. Enjoy!
  9. It's nice to have a weight and space restriction, it keeps you from buying random island art and coconuts carved into monkey faces.
  10. Saying goodbye is hard, but leaving is not the end. You can see friends and family even from afar if you try. Only death is final, not goodbye. Miss the ones who have passed, visit the rest.
  11. Things will go wrong on an adventure. They're supposed to, otherwise it wouldn't be an adventure. Relax.
And remember, when you're leaving Key West and driving, slightly hungover, north through the Florida Keys, stop at Baby's Coffee for a little boost. You won't regret it.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Independence Day Weekend in the Keys

From Key West

Saturday, I took advantage of being in a real bed and slept in to let my body rest. It was glorious. After getting up late, George and I met up with my friend Anni who was also in Key West for the weekend from Tampa. We drove her to a scooter shop where she rented a scooter to ride around town for the day. Then, we went to an amazing spa where we got the best feeling massages to ease our sore muscles. Although we hadn’t really ridden too hard, the extra special treatment was magnificent. From the resort grounds, we saw a very rusty, previously sunken ship being hauled to land. We found out later that the government offers $3000 for anyone to recover sunken ships. Whoever recovers the ship has to pay to float it and scrap it, but can keep whatever profits are left. What a great program! Perhaps this will be my fallback job if I ever decide to leave the mainland for the island life.
From Key West

Later, we still had our awesome bikes that now felt like home, so George and I decided to ride around town to explore. I am still relatively unfamiliar with Key West, even though this was my third time visiting. There is always something new and fun to see, and riding slowly on bikes is one of the best ways to see the town. Cars are too much of a hassle to park and walking in the heat is exhausting. We found the 0 mile marker which was very exciting for me considering I had started the trip at the 105 mile marker!! The mile marker countdown along the entire ride was very exciting, and I had finally made it to the very last mile.
From Key West

Some other tourist sights we went to see included:(this is a non-native tree, but still interesting)
  1. The Kapok Tree (this is a non-native tree, but still interesting)
  2. Ernest Hemingway’s House
  3. The Southernmost Point in the continental United States
  4. Beach Bocce Ball Courts
  5. and the National Champion Buttonwood (this one isn’t actually a normal tourist attraction, but it really should be!)
From Key West

The national champion buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus) is 207 inches in circumference, 35 feet tall, and has 70 feet of crown spread. It is a magnificent example of the tree that has grown in the shape of a hurricane with its massive shaggy branches twisting toward the sky. It is located on the corner of Washington and Leon Street on the main island of Key West in a residential yard. Buttonwoods are typically found in moist wetland soils, so the fact that this specimen is located on high and dry land is somewhat unusual. If you live in Florida, this tree makes a great landscaping plant because it is native to the state and it can tolerate harsh conditions with sand, salt and full sun. It is one tough tree!
From Key West

Dinner was lovely on the main docks and we noticed that the Keys docks were full of massive yachts and fishing boats, more so than normal. Upon closer inspection, we found that the owners and drivers from the Daytona 500 car races were in town and had all docked here. We kept our eyes peeled for famous drivers.
From Key West

Sunday we explored the beaches on Key West. Please note that the beaches on Key West are not as you might expect them to be. I had assumed that the beaches here would be pristine and gorgeous, but instead they are very rocky, with lots of broken coral and seaweed. The shoreline here is very shallow, so swimming in the ocean is not even an option as the water only comes to thigh deep (even on me!). So remember, the beaches at Long Key State Park and Bahia Honda are the ones to hit before reaching Key West.

In the afternoon we chartered a Dorado fishing boat (Reel Lucky) to go sport fishing. Anni brought her friend Eric along and the four of us had a blast with Captain Cory and his first mate. As it turned out, we were fishing about 200 yards from the Daytona 500 enormous sport fishing boat. But it didn't matter, we still managed to out-fish them from a boat about 3 times smaller than their boat! George and Eric landed two enormous tarpon, the biggest of which was probably almost 80 pounds. George also fought what turned out to be a skate for a while. I hooked up a large tarpon, but lost it on a jump after about 30 minutes of the hardest reeling I’ve ever done. Although I really wanted to land it, I was actually somewhat relieved that this wonderful creature had won the deserved it. I also caught an Atlantic Sharpnose shark! This one was super fun to fight and he was pretty feisty when we got him on the boat. Captain Cory grabbed the fighter and we got pictures before throwing him back in the water and watching him swim away. What a beautiful animal!

Later that evening we finished out our time in the Keys with a visit to Mallory Square to see the famous street performers at sunset (the Cat Man is a staple act and we also saw a new act by an 18 year old local). Then we saw a few acts at a drag show (Key West is also famous for their gay and drag scene. The ladies are all extremely talented here!). We ended the evening at a kickin live performance by the Spam Allstars at The Green Parrot (AJ Hill really rocked out on the sax that night!).
From Key West

It was a fabulous weekend filled with great people in an amazing paradise away from all the stresses of reality. After 100 miles of riding, you can’t help but relax. But it’s a process. Within the first 30 miles, I had shed all my most pressing worries and realized that I was now free of all problems. There was nothing I could control now, I had no technology to bog me down, no way to fix the bigger issues, and I needed to just let go of the things weighing on me. By 60 miles I put my energy into riding and appreciating my life as it was at that moment. Living in the moment has never been my forte. I’m always looking to the future, to my next adventure, and this ride was a great reminder and practice in appreciating the present. By mile 100 I was happy. Smiling and riding, the sun sparkling down on me, the wind in my hair, and sweet sweat squeezing out of every pore. My mind was clear and calm. What a wonderful life.

I recommend this ride to everyone and anyone adventurous enough to try it. You will not regret it! It is simple, easy, and life changing. There is no better way to experience the Keys!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Key West, Florida

Friday morning we woke up early...well, George woke up early and went riding around the park, and I woke up when I woke up (I'm still not a morning person). We packed up, parked his car in the marina parking lot, and headed south. The bike paths from here to big pine were lovely. There were many beautiful fishing bridges and lots of great bike paths. As we were entering Big Pine Key, we began to notice that we were on elevated bike paths. This is because the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key harbors a small population of endangered deer called Key Deer (Odocoileus virginianus clavium). They are a subspecies of the common Virginia white tail deer that has become miniaturized due to harsh environmental conditions on the island. The subspecies population in the Florida Keys is estimated to be between 600 and 750 individuals. The highway is elevated along a short stretch of Big Pine Key to allow the deer and other species to move freely in their habitat. Apparently, there are 17 federally listed threatened or endangered species that are protected by the National Key Deer Refuge!
As we rode into Big Pine Key we saw two very tiny key deer fawns curiously eating below us. Like white-tail deer up north, these fawns had small white spots, however they were probably only about 2.5 feet tall. So cute! We later saw two adult key deer that were quite a bit bigger. We learned that the locals and tourists feed the deer and as a result the species is becoming larger. Hmmm...does that mean that someday the population will be considered white-tail deer again rather than a subspecies?

Around 10am, once we had arrived on Big Pine Key, we rode north to find a place that had been recommended to me called “No Name Pub.” Along the ride we rode through beautiful, sparsely developed hardwood hammock habitat where key deer thrive. In northern Big Pine we found the pub, but it wouldn’t open for another hour, so we decided to head on. On the ride back to Route 1, we found the National Key Deer Refuge headquarters and some breakfast at Coco’s Kitchen. While we ate, an ominous thunderstorm rolled in and started to pour. In an optimistic streak, we headed out of the cafe during a lull in the storm and started to ride west again. Within less than a block we were rained out and sought shelter under the awning of a CVS pharmacy. Unlike typical Florida storms that last for 20 minutes, this storm was persistent and we were stranded for about an hour. Under the awning we met several locals who were unemployed due to the economy and down on hard times. Sadly, this area was hit very hard by the recession and business is slow to come back, causing high homelessness among the locals.
Once we got back on the road and started splashing through the foot deep puddles, we were ready for some refreshing beverages. Looe Key Tiki Bar was our first find after Big Pine Key. This stop is located just after Torch Ramrod Channel, my favorite named channel on the ride. For future reference, the Looe Key Resort has a great tiki bar, hotel, restuarant, and a pool for use. Apparently, so of the best snorkeling in the entire continental USA is right at Looe Key. Also, bar patrons can use the refreshing looking pool, which would be perfect during a hot and sweaty bike ride. Mangrove Mama’s, a delicious homey local restaurant in Sugarloaf Key was our second stop where we had fruity cocktails served in mason jars. From there, we hit each interesting looking restaurant, tiki bar, or dive bar along the route. If you are ever considering this ride, a little pub crawl bike-ride into Key West is for certain the best way to enter. It is like a small ceremonial parade welcoming you into a city known for its relaxed, island spirit. We spoke to the locals at each stop and got some great suggestions for local stops. The lovely bartender at Mangrove Mama’s asked us if we’d seen the bat tower as if it was a world renowned monument. She actually said "you haven't seen Key West until you've seen the bat tower." Of course, we hadn’t, but our curiosity got the best of us and we inquired about its history. Supposedly, the bat tower had been constructed in the early 1900s in an attempt to use bats as a biological control for the abundant mosquitoes in the lagoons. Unfortunately, the project failed miserably, and the bat population flew away, leaving the mosquitoes to flourish. We felt a responsibility to check out the flopped project and found it to be a random historical novelty.

Our trail also took us to Bobalu’s Southern Cafe and Hurricane Joe’s Bar and Seafood Grill. By this time, we had ridden about 45 miles and had about 5 more miles to get to the rental car place before they closed. The stretch from Bahia Honda State Park to Key West was the longest (about 50 miles with all the diversions) of the four day bicycle ride, but it felt great and very satisfying. We barely made it to the rental car office before they closed, we locked our bikes to a bike rack, and drove back to Bahia Honda State Park to retrieve George’s car. Yes, I know this sounds funny, but we couldn’t think of a better way to get his car back, and it was cheaper than getting a taxi. We had a late dinner at Hogfish Restaurant (a great restaurant off the beaten path) and made it to downtown Key West for last call. Let’s just say, the people watching at Sloppy Joe’s Bar and Durty Harry’s around 2am are fantastic!

Welcome to Key West!! We made it!! What an accomplishment. This was the best trip I have ever taken! Although lots of people had warned me of potential issues with traffic, camping, and strangers, I never ran into any trouble and had a wonderful time. Besides a little bit of saddle soreness, I felt fantastic. The multiple stops, leisurely pace, and the great campsites spaced at about 30 miles apart, made the trip effortless and relaxing.